Hookah culture split on Steinway, in more ways than one

By Cynthia Ghazali and GP Ingersoll

Astoria, Queens – Walking along Steinway Street in Astoria Queens, one can smell the different aromas of flavored tobacco. From strawberries to apples to tropical fruits to mint chocolate chill, bars and cafes serve hookahs, tall glass water pipes of Indian origin, according to each person’s taste.

Hookah businesses along Steinway are surviving the recession as an increasing number of people develop a taste for flavored tobacco helping it move beyond traditional Mid-Eastern circles and into New York nightlife. Since Hookah lounges are exempt from Bloomberg’s strict anti-smoking legislation, for some they also stand as a welcomed smoke-filled return of New York nightlife.

“Our patrons are mostly from colleges and outer Boroughs,” said Najib Bennani, owner of the sheik, bass bumping Jour et Nuit, who added that weekends are his busiest time, since students have off from school. “Hookah bars are getting more popular, it’s like the new fashion.”
But as the tradition becomes more popular, some hookah lounges have made the business decision to serve alcohol going against Muslim faith. For Bennani, his decision to serve wine and beer, at Jour et Nuit, was based on one reason: “People who serve alcohol obviously make more money,” he said.

Many patrons agree. “I would not go into a place that doesn’t serve liquor,” said Stephanie Cotrone, 25, who is not Muslim but frequents hookah spots on Steinway. Her ideal hookah bar is one that not only serves different flavored tobacco but must have alcohol and great music too
Most of the hookah businesses that serve alcohol, like Jour et Nuit, have started by just serving wine and beer under a restaurant wine license rather than obtaining a more costly full liquor license that can be difficult to get under New York City regulations. But because of the profitability some businesses are beginning to show an interest in offering more alcohol options.

“Most people who order a hookah get a drink,” said Fatima Kara, the waitress at Fayrooz Café, Bar, and Lounge. Fayrooz serves beer and wine only because it was cheaper and easier to get the license for it, she said, however, the owner has recently applied for a full liquor license.

The decision of businesses that traditionally have catered to Muslim clientele to serve alcohol, which is forbidden by the Koran, is starting to cause a rift in the community along Steinway Street.

“We are Muslim and we don’t serve alcohol because it is haram (unlawful and prohibited).” said Mohamed Ali, 27, a waiter at Firdos Grill and Café, which is next door to a Hookah lounge that does serve liquor. Both businesses sit across the street from the mosque on Steinway. “We would make good money with a liquor license. If we apply, we would get it but we don’t want it.”

The mixing of alcohol with a beloved cultural tradition has not only caused divisions along faith but has pitted young verses old as some younger Muslims like the more modern hookah lounges.

Leo Santini said his lounge, Shams el Asseil, caters more to the sophisticated Muslim culture present in and around Steinway. Most of the patrons are Mulsim, middle class middle aged men who do not drink alcohol due to their faith.

“Yes, our customers are a little older and more conservative,” admitted Santini. A few gentlemen sitting outside in suits, sipping on tea and smoking hookah chimed in at hearing Santini’s comment.

“I have little kids and I am Muslim, what do I need with loud music and alcohol?” said one.

“We just want to relax after work,” said another.

These groups can be seen daily, gathered on the sidewalk by the handful, congregating around 5 p.m. Talking local politics in Arabic, telling jokes, reading newspapers, and smoking hookah. Shams el Asseil is the type of place where “As-Salam Alaikum,” Arabic for “God’s light be upon you,” is the standard greeting amongst patrons.

It provides a stark contrast to the crowd seen just down the street at Firdos Grill and Café.

“Hi,” yelled Aishah Akram above the fast-beat Arab dance music to her friend Omar Baig.

Akram and Baig are both 22-year-old college students from Long Island who, because of their Muslim faith, do not drink alcohol, but still prefer the more club atmosphere of the updated hookahs, like Firdos, where they prefer to pair their Persian Sands flavored tobacco with chicken kebobs.

However, as twentysomethings they recognize that although they abstain from alcohol many of their peers do not and so they do not object going to the hookahs that serve alcohol especially when introducing college friends to Steinway Street.

“We’ve gone into some of those more traditional hookah bars – no music, news on the TV — No young kids want to go there,” said Akram, adding: “[That] environment caters to an older generation, it’s what they want in order to chill, I guess.”

Proof that everyone’s taste is different.